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Following its first 'Conversazioni' album (Andrew O'Connor reviewed it in October 2011), Sounds Baroque continues in its second to re‑create the kind of musical programmes presented at the gatherings of Rome's Arcadian Academy, which sought a return to the simplicity of form and expression of Classical Greece. We are invited to 'imagine the academicians and their guests spending their Sunday afternoon in an elegant 18th century picture gallery, palatial salon or beautiful Roman garden', and this particular imagined gathering includes a number of contests between various musicians. We have the celebrated contest of keyboard skills between Handel and Scarlatti as well as musical contests between two violins (in a Caldara Trio Sonata), two lovers (in Handel's
Amarilli vezzosa ‑ often known as Il duello amoroso) and a goddess and a mortal man.
This last contest is depicted in Gasparini's Io che dal terzo ciel, but what contest there is seems to be more in the nature of Venus and Adonis trying to outdo each other in expressions of mutual affection. Before heading off to Venice (where he was, in effect, Vivaldi's boss at the Ospedale della pieta), Gasparini had been an active participant as violinist and composer at these gatherings, and this cantata perfectly encapsulates the ideals of the Arcadian Academy. Its opening harp solo (magically played by Frances Kelly) evokes an appropriately pastoral setting, while the pure, limpid tones of Anna Dennis, bathed in an ethereal radiance and coupled with a lovely feel for the musical shape and an effortless delivery of Gasparini's weightless lines, seems the ideal musical representation of the goddess Venus. Her adoring lover, Adonis, is the splendid countertenor Andrew Radley and when he confesses that 'my human face, compared to your beauty, is like the humble atom that is more beautiful when the sun gilds it with its rays', one can only assume that the sun was simply blazing down on his vocal chords when the recording was made. Vocally, he is the perfect Adonis; adorable and poised, pure in tone but strong in delivery. In the Handel cantata these two singers have a more dramatic, not to say fiery, encounter. Dennis, removed from her goddess's throne, has all the biting arrogance of the proud Amaryllis, while Radley induces pity and contempt in equal measure with his dewy‑eyed and hapless shepherd, Daliso.
The Handel/Scarlati contest is depicted by two keyboard works which both open with an identical theme; the difference between them highlighted by Julian Perkins' decision to play the Handel Sonata (HWV;79) on the harpsichord (in two different versions) and the Scarlatti Sonata (Kk63) on the organ. Perkins certainly draws attention to both the improvisatory and virtuoso elements in these pieces with performances of great energy, but his own booklet notes remind us that these contests were not merely concerned with virtuoso display but also with the ability to move the emotions of the listeners. He proves his point with an intensely beautiful performance of the Scarlatti Sonata in D minor (Kk32).
It is probably stretching the contest idea too far to include the Caldara Trio Sonata
on the basis that it presents a duel between two violins; more than anything they seem
to caress each other lovingly in the slow movements and run along happily hand in hand (metaphorically, that is) in the two vivace movements. In any case violinists Jane Gordon and Jorge Jimenez can hardly lay claim to exclusive dominance in the work;
the cello of Jonathan Rees joins in with equal virtuosity and enthusiasm, while all three players are egged on eagerly by the continuo team of James Akers and Perkins.
This is a
lovely disc, ingeniously programmed and lovingly performed by some
outstanding musicians. The booklet essays are superb, while the recording is
a model of clarity and warmth. As such it makes an ideal tribute to the late
Noelle Barker, whose death, following the release of the first 'Conversazion
I', clearly robbed these players of a wonderful guiding light; 'a formidable
teacher and a refreshingly honest friend', as the printed tribute